A Guide to Navigating Life as a Refugee

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When my grandparents were displaced from Northern Palestine to Lebanon in 1948, they had no way of knowing that they would be the first of many generations of refugees to follow. Despite losing their house, their jobs, and most of their possessions, they held onto hope that one day soon they would be able to return to their home and pick up their lives where they had left off. But they became stateless… and so did my parents… and so did my generation… and so did the generation that followed. By the time I entered the world as a refugee, children being born without a true home had already become a terrible normality.

In 2000, World Refugee Day was established to coincide with Africa Refugee Day on June 20. Just over a decade later, the Syrian Civil War displaced more than 9 million people, creating a global migrant crisis that has frequented international headlines ever since.

Fast-forward to today, more than 60 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes. About one-third of those displaced are living under refugee status, the majority of whom are forced to live in overcrowded camps withinhumane living conditions. 

Many attempt to escape by migrating to Europe, but without the resources to secure proper travel arrangements, thousands die every year attempting the voyage. Overcrowded and poorly built boats have been known to capsize and kill hundreds at a time. Their bodies are tossed ashore by the Mediterranean with such regularity that it has become a matter of statistics, rather than individual cases of inhumanity.

Last year, I wrote an article for World Refugee Day hoping it would help shed light on the dire situation of our global migrant crisis. And since then, countless reports, stories, and articles have continued to pour in, reminding us that the crisis is far from over.

The world knows the problem too well, yet awareness of the refugees’ plight only helps so much. That’s why instead of writing about the crisis again this year, I’ve opted to reach out directly to those who are displaced–not only as someone who has witnessed the crisis firsthand as a journalist, but also by sharing my personal experience of growing up stateless.

The following is my guide to navigating life as a refugee. I write this not only for those displaced, but for all of humanity, as no person can ever predict when a war, fire, or flood will displace them from their home. Over the years, the world has proved that when it comes to displacement, no region or person is immune.

RULE #1: MAKE HOPE YOUR OXYGEN

So now you have lost everything. The reality of becoming displaced is jarring, but it’s paramount that you don’t allow your current circumstances to steal your hope for the future. Refugees know better than anyone that material possessions are not permanent. This is what makes hope the most valuable asset to an asylum-seeker. Because unlike most things in this world, hope is one of the few things nobody can take away from you.

When I was growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp, I hoped for many things, but a proper education was near the top of the list. I knew that an education for someone in my position was a long-shot as Palestinians could not attend public schools in Lebanon–but I never let that reality steal my hope for higher learning. I studied as hard as I could, and one day I was fortunate enough to earn a high school scholarship, and ultimately would obtain another to attend university in Canada.

When you’re a refugee, opportunities like the ones I received are few and far between. By using hope as the fuel to your fire, you can be assured that you’re ready to capitalize should an opportunity ever arise.

When you lose everything, hope becomes your life force, your oxygen–you must maintain it at all costs. Harness it and let it fuel you to transform nothing into something incredible.

RULE #2: YOU ARE A FIGHTER

Regardless of whether you were born a refugee or became one later in life, you must fight for a new beginning. Your war is not fought on the battlefield, but rather on the stage of daily life. You must fight to maintain your dreams and goals. You must fight the laws of society that seek to discriminate against you and others who share your plight. But most of all, you must fight to survive.

Syrian refugee Ameer Mehtr showed the world just how fiercely the displaced will fight in order to find a new beginning. Ameer left his home of Damascus after his friend was killed by a government sniper and his family’s home was destroyed in the crossfire of civil war, eradicating whatever finances his family had left. Ameer fled to Turkey, and subsequently swam across an 8-kilometer stretch of the Mediterranean to the Greek island of Samos. The trip took 7 hours.

“Every second of the way I thought I was going to die,” Mehtr said. “But I kept going. I just kept looking at the cliffs in front of me and thinking ‘There is my future!'”

A refugee must be creative and resourceful to find every possible avenue in regards to education and employment. The internet today has no borders, meaning there are occupations around the world that will allow you to work remotely. The United Nations has called for all businesses to utilize whatever resources they have to help alleviate massive unemployment among the displaced. You can visit the UN website to see a list of businesses who have answered the UN’s call with pledges. There, you can examine what type of programs can be utilized to help provide yourself more opportunities for employment and education in the future.

Like Ameer, a time will come where you must decide whether to accept your fate or take control of your own destiny. Don’t give up without a fight.

RULE #3: SEEK LOVE IN THE WORLD

While it’s important to fight, you must also keep in mind what it is you are fighting for. A refugee fights because they love their family, their friends, their homes, and themselves. In times of great turmoil, it’s easy to lose sight of what matters most.

Not everyone in the world is looking down at you, and you are not everyone’s problem. Numb yourself to the naysayers who do not understand your journey. If you find yourself feeling alone, remind yourself that there are many people out there who wish to help you seek out a better life.

I will never forget the kindness of those who helped me move from Lebanon to Canada, and the opportunity I was given to fulfill my dream of obtaining a higher education. In the worst of times, you may find it hard to believe that there are those out there who love and wish to help you. Keep an open heart, otherwise you may not recognize when somebody truly has your best interests in mind.

RULE #4: DON’T LET GO OF YOUR PRIDE

Being a refugee will naturally affect a person’s pride. Some people may misperceive displacement as your defining quality, but nothing could be further from the truth. Remember that it is the person inside that defines who you are, and not whatever outside circumstances you may have found yourself in.

Identification will always be an issue when you are a refugee. I remember feeling self-conscious and a little embarrassed the first time I left Lebanon. Whenever I presented my travel document to an agent, they acted as if they had never seen anything like it before in their life. It was on that trip that I was first given the label of ‘Stateless.’ While I was able to complete my journey to Canada successfully, there were many moments of self-consciousness along the way.

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I also remember distinctly how uneasy I felt when swarms of humanitarians, journalists, and photographers would visit our camp regularly in search of a story. As a journalist today, it’s easy for me to reconcile that these people were doing their jobs, and many had nothing but good intentions. But as a youth, it seemed almost as if they were there only to highlight just how less fortunate we were than the rest of the world.

The outside world’s perception and acceptance (or lack thereof) of refugees is also going to try your pride at times. In fact, the more you experience the rest of the world, the more you realize how polarizing and misunderstood the migrant crisis can be for outsiders. More than half of the United States’ governors made it known that they oppose allowing refugees of the Syrian Civil War to resettle in their states. Most Arab countries’ laws make it extremely difficult for a displaced person to obtain a work permit or visa, and some feelings of rejection may begin to eat away your self-esteem.

My life was changed forever when I was given a chance to resettle in Canada. Today, my refugee origins are a source of great pride, and it should be for you too. We are the embodiment of strength, persistence, and resilience. We are the ones who will never give up. By refusing to break under the pressure of great adversity, you become empowered to write your own story, in which you are the hero. Never let anyone take your pride away.

RULE #5: THE WORLD IS YOUR HOME NOW

Finding a new home does not mean you have forgotten or given up your old one. It’s true that your home will always be worth returning to (although it might not be what it once was). We all have a home that we long for, but obsessing over the idea of return may deter you from seeking a new beginning. It’s never too late to start again, and you’d be surprised by how big the world truly is. While nothing will be quite like your home, you may find that there are parts of the world which suit you better than you could have ever imagined.

Never, ever feel as though you are homeless, even if you are living in a tent. After I completed my education, I took every opportunity I could to see the world. What I found is that everywhere is unique and beautiful in its own way. You don’t have to limit yourself to a single home, either. Through my travels, I’ve met so many wonderful people and experienced so many beautiful places that I now feel as though I have many homes.

Family is important, money is helpful, and nice houses are great. But you don’t need these things to have a great home. A great home is anywhere that you feel you can be yourself, happy and loved by those surrounding you.

THE NEXT STEP

All refugees, even after gaining another citizenship, must always remember where they have come from. Once you have been a refugee, you will always remember being a refugee, no matter how many homes you make for yourself in the future. You will maintain your hope, your pride, your determination, and all of the other traits that were vital when you were still stateless.

Then you will become a messenger of this cause. It’s your duty to pass the torch and to reach out to others who haven’t found their new beginning yet.

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